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New Mexico Birding

Find out the best places to bird and what birds you might see when you visit New Mexico.

Jerry Uhlman

In New Mexico, you can visit HawkWatch International at the Manzano Mountains, where thousands of raptors are counted and banded each year.

Not far from the Mexican border, you’ll find one of the most intriguing and diverse environments imaginable. In south-central New Mexico, long arid stretches of the Chihuahuan desert appear beside forested mountaintops and mesas with mule deer and bighorn sheep. You’ll see verdant oases and have the chance to visit two national wildlife refuges, one considered a crown jewel of the refuge system.

Once a heavily traveled 1500-mile trade route, El Camino Real linked Mexico City with what is now Santa Fe and was used by indigenous peoples of the Southwest, Spanish explorers, Catholic missionaries and settlers in the 1600s and beyond. You can follow the Royal Road over a 225-mile stretch from Las Cruces to Albuquerque, finding desert, alpine forest, grassland and riparian species at nearly a dozen excellent birding spots.

Las Cruces offers a good starting point. To the east, you’ll pass through San Augustine Pass at an elevation of 5,719 feet, roughly half as high as the highest mountaintops heading north of the Rio Grande River. Once a prosperous mining area, the Organ Mountains are nowadays a favorite recreation spot of mountain bikers, wildlife watchers and hikers.

You’ll want to visit two birding spots east of Las Cruces during early-morning hours. A few miles east on State Route 70, watch for signage for Dripping Springs Natural Area, a Bureau of Land Management site near White Sands. Dripping Springs Trail and another through the main picnic area have good habitats of brush, desert and forest stands that might host orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Sage Thrashers, Ash-throated Flycatchers and Eastern and Western Bluebirds.

A few miles farther on State Route 70 is Aguirre Spring Campground, another BLM site. Opt for Pine Tree Trail, a 4-mile loop that climbs to the base of the Organ Needles in ponderosa pine habitat.  Although the trail has stretches of steep terrain, it is an excellent pathway to find Plumbeous, Gray and Hutton’s Vireos and Black-chinned Sparrows in the summer. You should have a good chance to spy Virginia’s, Grace’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers.

From Las Cruces, you can head north on Interstate 25 or follow State Route 185, a byway that parallels the interstate. Before reaching Truth Or Consequences ("T or C” on local signs), you’ll find two state parks well worth visiting: Percha Dam and Caballo Lake. After driving through the desert, these parks are welcome oases.

Black-Headed Grosbeaks

In Dripping Springs Natural Area you might find birds such as Black-headed Grosbeaks (above), Sage Thrashers, Ash-throated Flycatchers and Eastern and Western Bluebirds.

At Percha Dam State Park, stately cottonwood and Russian olive trees sit near a 11,500-acre lake that offers good fishing as well as birding. Local birders consider it one of the best migrant traps in the state, and after a spring morning around the cottonwoods and streamside vegetation, you’ll become a believer. You’ll also have opportunities to find Cactus Wrens, Phainopeplas and other desert species. Keep an eye out for raptors; this is a good spot to spy Swainson’s, Harris’s and Ferruginous Hawks.

At nearby Caballo Lake State Park, you’ll have a chance to see Bald and Golden Eagles that arrive in November to nest along the reservoir banks and hillsides. This park offers less birding habitat, yet the southern campground along the banks of the Rio Grande can be lively despite a large RV rally site nearby.

North of T or C, Elephant Butte Lake is the largest and most popular lake in New Mexico. It often hosts a large raft of grebes, including Clark’s, Western and Eared. During shorebird migrations, the mudflats might have a large number of birds that require a spotting scope for identification.

Despite the huge waterbody, the area is one of the driest stretches along the Rio Grande. Away from the park amenities, you’ll have an opportunity to find Sage and Black-throated Sparrows along the park’s desert edges as well as Gambel’s Quail and White-winged Doves.

Heading north on Route 1, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is a premier birding site along the Royal Road. Spanish for "woods of the Apache,” the refuge has miles of riverfront habitat plus large pools with water levels regulated by pumps and dikes. The combination of Chihuahuan desert, patchy grassland, huge cottonwood trees and riparian vegetation attracts more than 350 species of birds.

Visitors from around the globe come to the refuge to view thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese and Bald Eagles that overwinter there, and an annual Festival of the Cranes takes place the weekend before Thanksgiving in November. A 15-mile loop includes a marsh loop of 7 miles and a farm loop of 71/2 miles.

You’re apt to see disparate species such as Green-winged Teal and Greater Roadrunners to American Kestrels and Black Phoebes. Several observation decks help you scan crane flocks as they feed in the grasses, and occasionally you might spot an endangered Whooping Crane or two among them.

At Percha Dam State Park, stately cottonwood and Russian olive trees sit near a 11,500-acre lake that offers good fishing as well as birding. Local birders consider it one of the best migrant traps in the state, and after a spring morning around the cottonwoods and streamside vegetation, you’ll become a believer.

In addition to the autoroute, you’ll find several trails to explore. The River and Rio Viejo trails along the Rio Grande and portions of the Chupadera Trail will get you into prime riparian and arid environments so that you’ll find many of the refuge’s breeding birds: Curve-billed and Crissal Thrashers, Verdin and Bushtits, Chihuahuan Ravens and Western Scrub-Jays as well as Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Vermilion Flycatchers and endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatchers.

Just north of the refuge, you’ll reach the town of Socorro, a source for motels, restaurants and supermarkets. When you reach Albuquerque, consider two sites not far from the Royal Road: Sandia Crest among upscale ski resorts for rosy-finches from November through March at an elevation of 10,600 feet and a hawkwatch site in the Manzano Mountains near the town of Manzano.

For good looks at Gray-crowned, Brown-capped and Black Rosy-finches, head east on I-40 and north on State Route 14. Follow the signs to Sandia Crest, and look for the birds around the parking lot before reaching the top. Sandia Crest House, your destination, offers grand panoramas as well as several feeders that attract rosy-finches.

You can reach the Manzano Mountains hawkwatch, southeast of Albuquerque, by leaving I-40 at exit 175 and following State Route 337 south to the town of Manzano. In Manzano, follow the signs to New Canyon Campground (roughly 9 miles of forest road). Near the end of the road, you’ll see a fire tower from which a trail leads across an alpine meadow to the observation site. At this Hawkwatch International site, thousands of raptors are counted and banded from the middle of August through October.

Want more places to go birding?

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Excerpt from WildBird May/June 2012 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC.

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Posted: April 16, 2014, 11:45 a.m. PDT

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